The World Won't Forgive or Forget

Monday, 05 May 2003 01:02 by: Anonymous
By Peter Preston
The Guardian

Monday 5 May 2003

A vast global majority opposed the war - and nothing has changed.

So that's all right, then? George W proclaims the fighting over; Tony Blair shifts his adjectives of mass persuasion to the home front; house-trained local mandarins begin talking about consensuses restored, bridges rebuilt. Time to move on. We must give a lead. But why is nobody following?

The assumption - the American and British governments' assumption - is that, as always, facts have to be faced. It isn't any longer a question of whether Saddam should be deposed. He and his boys are history. Those who doubted or denounced us are therefore living in a particularly futile version of the past. We (famous words) are where we are.

But I keep remembering where I was just before the war started and just after it finished. Before was a meeting of editors (not diplomats or politicians) from the 34 Commonwealth countries. After was a meeting in Kazakhstan for 200 or so journalists from all over Europe, Asia and the Middle East. A sampling of Barbadians, Fijians, Zambians, Russians, Pakistanis, Italians, Danes, Azerbaijanis - and many more. Opinion formers, all of them. And the fascinating thing is that nothing has changed. Victory in the desert hasn't made a blind bit of difference.

The rest of the world is neither forgiving nor forgetting. Its rulers may, or may not, Mr Putin, be trying to change the record, but the people they rule have elephants' memories and a view which mere outcomes do not affect. They proved nothing down the barrel of their own guns.

Why, in the beginning, were the Commonwealth editors so shocked? Because they didn't like being pushed around. Because the United Nations is their link to central control, not a drag anchor on superpower ambition. Because (in too many cases, at least) they also felt vulnerable. If one dodgy regime can suffer American wrath, then what about the dodgy government I am stuck with at home?

Such views do not change with Jay Garner. On the contrary, they're reinforced. The ease of victory, however predictable, makes military inferiority all the more obvious. The swaggering over Syria implicitly asks: who's next? The UN seems even more of a back number than it did in March. Why should one simple act of conquest make anything different?

And those gathered a few days ago in Almaty, with the Gobi desert just over the next mountain range, felt exactly the same. Here comes democracy? Not where we live, cried the Pakistanis. Not very noticeably to central Asia, muttered many Kazakhs. (Did you know that Turkmenistan, one of the most ludicrous, barbarous states on earth, had joined the coalition of the willing?) The Europeans - even from countries whose leaders had signed up for the war - looked glum or angry. Those few Americans in sight declined to play Rumsfeld's greatest hits. I was treated kindly, almost pityingly. There, there ... we know it wasn't your fault. But what in the world did your Mr Blair think he was doing?

Now, perhaps the mandarins are right. Perhaps, over time, the Chiracs and the Schr ders will have to crawl back into line. Putin's Russian-language press didn't go a bundle on his lecture to Blair. Spin breaks every which way. Money talks. But sullen acquiescence at the top does not mean parallel acceptance down below. On the contrary, those missing weapons of mass destruction open fresh wounds of mistrust. Did Washington and London just make it all up? Did they play the UN for suckers? Did they hang the awful Saddam out to dry with a ruthlessness even he might envy? If they did, then indeed we, or any of our regional allies, could be next. What price Blair's higher morality now? Whenever Bush sneezes, we could all catch a cold.

Some of these perceptions, perhaps, are a nuance or two short of the full insight. They can be dismissed, in mandarin-speak, as naive, simplistic, only part of a much bigger picture. They won't be what governments themselves say in a year's time. Yet that does not make them matters of insignificance. Absolutely, I think, the reverse.

The Russians I talked to didn't just agree with Putin - they were way ahead of him. The Germans didn't just agree with Schr der - they were far in the lead. The Pakistanis' sincere despair for their country was manifest.

We still assume that leaders lead and people follow. We forget that sometimes it's the other way round, that maybe Schr der and Chirac did what they had to do; that publics have their fixed opinion, too.

There was no war bounce for Labour when local Britain voted last week. And why should there be, you ask? What's Baghdad got to do with holes in the road in Brum? But it is not fanciful to discern a rather more subtle connection.

Scotland said it best. Labour, SNP, Lib Dem? None of the above if at all possible. Bring on the Greens and the red Sheridans. Bring on the single issue mavericks. There was absolutely no smack of higher authority here. Voters, when they turned out, brusquely declined to conform. Adjectives slid off them as from duck feathers.

And that may be the final, wider lesson of this war. We groundlings, down below, we Zambians and Azerbaijanis, didn't see the case to begin with. We scornfully reject it now. Whatever those guys in the presidential palaces or state houses have to say, we know the truth - and it both alarms and disgusts us. Bush? That's a shudder; but in only six years at most he'll be history. Britain? That's a longer shrug. Britain chose what it thought it had to choose, what it will probably always choose. Britain defined itself for the 21st century. And we from the rest of the world, with our elephants' memories? We shall remember.

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Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:39